I’m at a point in writing my memoir where I am admitting some really ugly truths. Those closest to me know what they are but I’ve never made them public. If I were to think about how other people might judge me for my past, I might never write this book at all. So I don’t think about writing in terms of possible consequences—I think instead about how even the worst truths aren’t as devastating as the best image-keeping lies.
The child in the Hawaiian print shorts is very likely my brother or sister. I tend to think brother, but there’s no way to know for sure. What I do know is that this picture was taken in June of 1959, on a Navy base—2 years and 7 months before I was born. The girl sitting on the floor is my eldest sister, Dawn. We look nothing alike. I look nothing like my other older sister, Dianne, either.
I look like the child in the flowered shorts and so does my son. Same coloring, hair, lips, eyes, and ears. Same face shape and expression when tired.
This picture was discovered and given to me after my mother died, but she wouldn’t have told the truth or given me a name even if she had lived another six decades. She was married when I was born, to a man that was so obviously not my father that it only took me about five years before I began suspecting the truth. It took 30 years beyond that to get her to admit her infidelity fully. Still, she wouldn’t tell me anything about the man who fathered me. I don’t know his name or his nationality. I don’t know one-half of myself and it’s a blank history I’ve passed on to my children. I suspect that the affair between my mother and biological father wasn’t short—that he was also married and stationed on the same ship and Navy bases that my stepfather was.
This post isn’t about unsolved mysteries, though. I’ve sadly reconciled to the fact that I have almost no chance of finding out who the child in the photograph is or who my real father is—my mother had no close friends and held onto her secrets tightly.
What I want to say—what I want to scream, really— is that this is why people should not lie. Not to their children and not to others. Lies are not contained in a neat, singular vacuum. They have far-reaching consequences, for the liar certainly, but even more so for the ones who have been told the lies.
My mother was ashamed of me and her husband resented me. I felt it, I knew it down to my bones, but I didn’t know why. I turned myself inside out trying to be better, trying to understand why I could never, ever be good enough. I was about seven the first time I ever thought about suicide. My child brain reasoned that since I was the source of her misery, my death would make my mother happy—and nothing makes a child feel so good as when they can please their mother. Over time, as my own pain grew, my suicidal ideation became a self-comfort. “If it gets too bad, I can end it.” I comfort myself during hard times with the same thought today.
Most people, even the very young, I think, can feel the truth of a matter even if they don’t know the finer details. If a person feels lied to, even if someone close to them is insisting that they’re telling the truth, then there’s probably some divide between the information that was wanted and what was offered. My mother, for instance, used to point to my birth certificate as “proof” that her husband was legally my father. Legally is not actually—it didn’t square with the truth I wanted—but to her it was close enough. As an older child, she tormented me with teasing games of misinformation when I pressed the issue, telling me my father was Rod McKuen, Warren Beatty, or some stranger she met in a bar. Later, she’d recant and go back to the birth certificate. I can laugh at some of the stories now, but it’s not a happy laugh. There will always be some part of me that craves the truth even if it’s almost impossible to find.
A woman I recently met felt that something in her twenty-plus year marriage had changed and that her husband had grown more distant. At first he denied her feelings and then he blamed work, tiredness, and even her—if she didn’t nag him about it so much, maybe he’d be happier and more interested. For two years, she wavered in a space of swallowing her own feelings for his comfort, hoping he’d recover, and rising up to ask for the truth, or counseling, or some clue that she could work with. In the end she found out that he’d been having an affair. It was a brutal revelation, more so because it came late and it didn’t come from him. When faced with the truth he admitted to it but now, a year or so after the fact, what lingers for her isn’t the infidelity, but the two painful years she spent living with a lie, desperate to reconcile what she felt with what she was being told.
Two years, thirty-five years, or a lifetime…lies cause far more pain than honesty ever could. Had I been told the truth as a child, I might have better understood the why of being treated differently than my siblings. I might not have internalized the shame and resentment. Today, being told the absolute truth, under all circumstances, even if it has to be dug out of rock hard ground, might not be so very important to me. Had the wife been told from the start that her husband was having an affair, she might not feel so bitter about the two years she spent feeling desperate, abandoned, and confused.
People lie for many reasons, but one of the major ones is to make themselves look good. Denying the truth of my father meant that my mother didn’t have to admit to being unfaithful. Other people wouldn’t think less of her. How she looked in the eyes of others was more important to her than the pain her lie caused me or even herself. It couldn’t have been easy for her to have and raise a child she did not want. Had she been willing to be more honest though, she might have given me up for adoption and saved us both from decades of turmoil. She might have looked bad to family and acquaintances for a while but the shame she felt would not have been as long lasting and the consequences not as heavy.
I’ve no doubt that the woman’s husband lied to look good, or at least better, too. He didn’t want to admit to an affair because that would mean that he was responsible for doing something unethical. It was easier for him to put the burden of their failing relationship on his wife because he could still look like the good guy. He wrote the story of an overworked, tired man with a nagging wife and wanted her to follow along until maybe, at some point in the future, when it was more convenient for him, he was ready to leave home and start a new life with someone else.
There are common lies of omission and less commonly, differing definitions. My ex-lover would insist that she loved me but her actions toward me didn’t match her words. In the end I didn’t feel loved, so the chances are that I was not—at least not in any way that would have matched my definition. Love invites in, it doesn’t shut out. Love is special and rare and not easily replaceable. Love is willing to fight for itself. Everyone has their own definitions of what love is and isn’t. Had I known that her definition was so far off from my own—had she told me that her feelings about love were, in fact, quite opposite, I might not have invested so much of myself into loving her, and the end of our relationship would not have been as fraught with confusion and anguish. I would have been quicker to forgive her for not being able to return the same kind of love I gave to her, and I would not still be working on healing months after our final goodbye.
Lies are not solitary, isolated events. They change people—mentally and spiritually—which means they also affect that person’s present and future—and never, it seems, for the better. Lies add pain to situations that are all ready painful. The truth is not always kind but at least what people might feel as the result of an unhappy truth is real. It’s not clouded with confusion, suspicion, and lack of knowledge.
A harsh truth might cut deeply, but only the first time it’s told. Lies, on the other hand, are like a continuous poison that can seep into years, even decades. It’s easier to heal from a swift truth than a slow, drawn-out lie.
For that reason I’m all for telling people, including my own children, the truth even if it doesn’t make me look good. I know I’ll recover faster and so will others.